by David N Hafter, MFT
It has only been a handful of generations since people were born, lived their lives and died in the same geographical region. Unless a man was conscripted and hustled off to fight and die in faraway war, he was likely to live his life in the same place as did his father. His sons had the mentoring benefits of access to other family members and known community members in order to address growing up/rite of passage issues.
One of the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution is the breakdown of those non-parental mentoring relationships. As men followed employment opportunities outside of where they grew up, they uprooted (literally) their nuclear families and relocated to places where immediate access to caring mentors was often cut off. This pattern continues to this day. Uprooted families experience everything from linguistic differences and accents which separate them from their neighbors to unfamiliar cultural norms and social expectations. These differences can leave them isolated in their own communities.
In tribal cultures, where established rites of passage created the next generation of culturally consistent adults, it was not the parent who ushered a son or daughter through the process of transitioning from youth to adult. Rather, it was other trusted elders in the community who play that role. After all, for a child, it is often easier to hear guidance and constructive feedback from a trusted adult other than his or her parent. Indeed, life lessons successfully taught by a mentor have often been offered to the child many times before by a parent.
Today, there is a paucity of culturally competent mentoring opportunities for non-familial kids. In fact, there are now fewer mentoring opportunities of any sort, especially in schools. For example, when education funds get tight, arts, music and sports programs are the first to go, despite their value in terms of mentoring and skills development. Families may not be able to afford private lessons where their children could benefit from the tutelage of a coach. Even the military can no longer be counted upon to help in this arena. Military service used to play a significant social role in the grooming of youth into adulthood. With professional soldiering now the norm, entering the service – unless aiming at a high level career like a pilot – is more likely to be an economic decision than one steeped in a desire for self-realization (i.e. becoming a man). It is now an opportunity for under-served economic classes and carries with it an unusually high safety risk.
Like all adolescents, fatherless and/or mentor-less young men experience an inner striving for opportunities to earn their stripes as men. When society fails to recognize this need, we neglect to provide or support the structures where these needs can be met. Ironically, gang culture has elements that address some of these unmet needs: The need to belong to a community; the need to be relied upon; the need to transition to manhood by taking on and surviving a dangerous task. Unfortunately, gang activities – once organized around neighborhood protection – are now mostly organized around illegal activities focused on making money and anti-social attitudes and behaviors. The notion of doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do sounds antiquated compared to making money, which has proven to be the apparent over-arching value in our culture.
To counter these trends and their expensive consequences, it is not enough for enlightened men to have good intentions: We need an action plan with a commitment to following through.
What might that look like? The fantasy is to miraculously overhaul public priorities in line with what we perceive to be the chronic unmet needs of our youth. This White House proposal is a positive step in this direction yet these unmet needs dictate both a functional and practical grassroots approach which does not rely upon non-partisan political cooperation.
We can start by meeting some of the unmet needs of the fathers and ‘neighborhood elders’ who themselves may not have had the chance to be mentored in their youth. It is hard for a man to guide youth in ways he was never himself taught. Instead, many of these men learned their life lessons ‘the hard way’, at the fully respectable but unreliable ‘school of hard knocks’. To prepare men to be positive mentors, we start by serving them. In that vein, offer two models from my own experience:
Garage Groups: I have been a part of a ‘Garage Group,’ for twelve years now. Named for where we meet, our group of 6 to 8 men meets once a month to talk about issues that we face as men. We have no leader and few rules (no talking sports or politics). A brief check-in is followed by discussions on issues relating to the stressors in our lives: Work and relationship issues, parenting challenges, caring for aging parents and our own health and aging issues. We brainstorm solutions to vexing problems or just hear one another out, as needed. As we feel supported, we have the energy, inclination and ideas to support our youth.
Men’s Circles: An idea from the oft-maligned or dismissed Men’s Movement, Men’s Circles serve much the same role as garage Groups, but they are drop-in affairs, usually much larger (15 to 20 men) and tend not to provide a participant with ‘answers’. Instead, Men’s Circles are a place to hear and be heard with other men who may identify with whatever issue a man brings to the group. Just knowing that one is not alone with his issues is helpful and may lead to a man seeking more support. The Davis Men’s Circle operates free of charge.
So, first things first: We, as men, address our own unmet needs and re-connect with the power of community. Next, we calibrate our attitudes and behaviors according to both our own needs and those of our community. Fatherless boys need other men to step up as guides: uncles, older cousins, grandfathers, coaches, clergy and others. A healthy culture filled with young men who proudly own their strong sense of self is not made overnight but instead, step by step, man by man. Finally, together we create challenging activities – opportunities for boys to earn their place at the table of the community of men.
David N. Hafter, LMFT, (BA – Wesleyan University, Middletown CT; MA, JFK University, Orinda, CA) runs the Urban Children’s Resiliency Program at Victor Community Support Services, Davis CA. He has been a subject matter expert with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences since 1991.
Mr. Hafter is the author of Growing Balls: Personal Power for Young Men, a book of mentoring to, not about, young men. His group counseling curriculum Personal Power for Young Men, is available for downloading free of charge at www.growingballs.com. Mr. Hafter is also a musician, song-writer/performer and a somewhat capable tennis player and golfer.